Wednesday, August 21, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Emily Davidson

Emily Davidson is a writer from Saint John, New Brunswick, living in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her poetry has appeared in publications including ArcCV2The Fiddlehead, Poetry is Dead, Room, subTerrain, and The Best Canadian Poetry 2015. Her fiction has appeared in Grain and Maisonneuve. Emily holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and works as an editor for a content marketing agency. Her poetry collection, Lift, was released in spring of 2019 from Thistledown Press.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I think receiving that first emphatic Yes has built a foundation under some walls I didn’t know were crumbling. Holding my work between covers, as an object with page numbers has been a surreal experience. And it’s given me a good reason to share my writing—it’s easy to hand people a book. It’s a measurable thing we all understand.

Because Lift took seven years to find a home, it contains both recent work and earlier pieces. The recent poems are more honest and pared back—I ran out of things to write about that were comfortable, so was left no option but to wander off into the uncomfortable. The final manuscript is more polished, honest, and well-rounded than it would have been had I received an acceptance in year one. And that’s a comfort.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing fiction and poetry simultaneously. I came to poetry as a young person with a lot of feelings, and I came to fiction as a child with a lot of imagination. My childhood dovetailed with the beginning of word processors in schools, and watching words creep across the screen from my fingertips still gives me a thrill.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

Poems generally pop out whole, fairly quickly. They’re the creatures of a spark. I try to catch as much as I can in the moment, then leave them alone to germinate. When I come back later on, the editing pen comes out, and we see what we’re actually working with.

When it comes to fiction, I’m terrible at knowing that I’m starting a project until I’m somewhere in the middle. It’s a slow process for me—characters unfold a scene at a time, piecemeal, and I can’t seem to do outlines: if I know where the story is going, I lose all impetus to write it. I’m writing to discover. It’s not the best system: a lot of the time all I discover are dead ends.

4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

A poem most often begins with the listening part of my brain receiving some sort of radio transmission. A weird image, a line, an experience. The sluice gate is open, and a small flood has come in. It’s my job to respond as fast as I can.

It’s only after I take down a large handful of transmissions that I can tell if I’m assembling a project. As they accumulate, the pieces might start to point to themes, and so I can write to fill in the gaps. But it’s not yet been intentional on my part: the conscious decision to write a book about subject X has not happened to me. But there’s always time!

The process for fiction is similar, except that scenes are less about inspiration and a bit more about “what happens next.” As long as I have that question to answer, I can wade in.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love readings. My grandmother is a well-known (in East Coast terms) singer in Nova Scotia, and I like to think some of her flair found its way into my DNA—I love a stage. I love finding out what words I don’t know how to pronounce until I’m saying them out loud in rehearsal.

In terms of creative process, readings feel like a great testing ground and conclusion for a piece of work. I enjoy engaging with the electricity that an audience brings to a space, respecting and trying to add to that energy. I want to present in a way that expresses gratitude and gives something back. I also usually get to hear from other poets during an evening, which can inspire the poetry part of my brain to pull up its socks.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I don’t know that the questions I’m asking with my work are different from anyone else’s—I spend my time on why and how and who and where. But where I point my questions might be unique to me. I’m interested in the why of my own life, the who underneath a person I’ve met, the where of my surroundings. I like to use language to pick apart the mechanics of life to find the magic.

I wonder if the current questions include things like How do we do better? and What do I do with this hurt? and Where do I belong? and How do we survive? My little attentions are modest runs at those concerns.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

It may be that the role of the writer lately has been to say “Here’s where it hurts.” I think societally we are in a time of identifying and calling out suffering, naming it, being unwilling to bury or cover it up. And that’s vital work.

And there is also the part of writing that is “Here’s something beautiful.” Here’s a story, here’s a memory, here’s a joke. The act of connecting, communicating, sharing is also the writer’s business. So maybe I think of the writer as chronicler.

At summer camp, we carved our names into our bunks. “Emily wuz here.” It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s what we’re still doing. We were here, we were here, we were here.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Both, oh my land, both. Having Michael Kenyon edit Lift made the book so much more than it was to begin with—he pushed me, very gently, on the order of the manuscript, the poems included and left to the side, the section headings, the themes. But I really had to keep coming to the table, and it was raw. I took a day off work in the fall to implement a round of edits and ended up spending the day wandering my apartment in circles crying (this is probably the most poet thing I will ever admit to). The editing process felt like someone had pulled all the feathers off my beautiful poems, and I had to decide how to reassemble them. (This is zero commentary on Michael, he was a gem.) “Kill your darlings” is merciless and unkind, is what I think I’m saying. I love darlings. More darlings.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

When in doubt, sleep on it.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

I’m quite strategic in moving between genres, in that I cheat on poetry with fiction and I cheat on fiction with poetry. If a poem is giving me grief, I can show it I’m not bothered by bashing out some prose. If I’m stuck in a story, I can listen for the light footsteps of poetry and be released for a while. Having multiple projects on the go lets me feel I’m getting away with something at all times.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Routine is a wonderful idea that I have in no way been able to implement the last few years. Like many writers, I work full-time, so my Monday to Friday is a cycle of getting up, going to work, giving my best energy, and then coming home to lie down. I don’t love this; I want to do better. I recently went away for the weekend with some writer friends, and just the value placed on writing time—I’d forgotten how important it is to value your practice and prioritize it. I’d gotten a little burnt out, I think, a little disheartened. I’m trying to woo my practice back now, gently, with cookies.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

This question is tricky for me, as I’m in a season/coming out of a season of great stall. I’m talking years. And I don’t know that I did a good job of returning, but I will say that one helpful tactic I took (mostly as I had no other option) was to treat myself as the project, for a while. I did everything but write: I went to therapy. I switched careers. I moved apartments. I went on dates. I turned over all the rocks to see if some other aspect of my life could use my attention. And I don’t know if I’ve figured it out yet, but I do know that writers are not machines, and that’s progress.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Mmmm, the spray off the ocean. Pine trees and sea salt. Add in a bit of sulphur, and you’ve got Saint John.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I quite often come to poems via visual art and movies. A trip to the art gallery is a great way to inspire poems, and I love trying out other realities in film. There’s a poem in Lift that was directly inspired by a video I saw on the New York Times of various Swedes deciding whether or not to jump off a high dive. Because I truck in images, what I see is direct fodder for what I write.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I think my work is most in context among the East Coast poets, and that’s thanks to the influence of Anne Compton and Anne Simpson. I’ve been encouraged by incredible instructors: Rhea Tregebov, Robert Moore, Keith Maillard. My ear for story was set young by L.M.Montgomery, C.S. Lewis. And then there are the writer peers who hold me up: andrea bennett, Ben Rawluk, Erika Thorkelson, Leah Horlick, Michelle Deines, Natalie Thompson, Jordan Hall. The list is long. I’m lucky.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Publish a novel.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

In my early twenties, I flirted with the idea of pursuing acting. I think some of what makes a good writer applies to theatre—it’s a world of words and listening, communicating and radical acts of vulnerability.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

It was something I did that scratched the itch of being alive. It had the side benefit of earning me praise from others, and I’m very motivated by approval. Also, I auditioned for theatre school and didn’t get in.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I’m in the process of finishing Anna Maxymiw’s Dirty Work, and she does such a raw dance with language—it’s muscular and gutsy. And the last film that really shook me was The Wife—Glenn Close burns the place down.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Finding my way out of a dry spell. I’ve tried bullying and wheedling and therapy. All that’s left to me now is a sort of tender, feigned disinterest. I’m hoping the writing will come back to me like a cat. I wrote a short story this week. That’s something.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Jacqueline Turner, Flourish

What’s the matter with you

I remember my back pressed hot into the sandbar one second before my brothers pour water from red buckets onto my tanned belly and I jump up screaming. Exactly one second later I downplay my reaction to not give them the satisfaction. It’s a game of pretend I continue for a lifetime. Elif Batuman in The Idiot writes, “It can be really exasperating to look back at your past. What’s the matter with you? I want to ask her, my younger self, shaking her shoulder. If I did that, he would probably cry. Maybe I would cry, too.” We regulate our responses to be likeable thereby rendering ourselves weak and undesirable. Only to ourselves, though, only ourselves.

Flourish (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2019) is Vancouver poet Jacqueline Turner’s fifth poetry collection, after Into the Fold (2000), Careful (2003), Seven Into Even (2006) and The Ends of the Earth (2013), all of which have been published by ECW Press through editor Michael Holmes. Some of the poems in Flourish are reminiscent of certain works by Margaret Christakos, Rachel Zucker or Anne Carson for their own lyric explorations, composing poems as small studies, and allowing different levels of the personal and interpersonal into the body of their poems. The poems of Turner’s Flourish, predominantly a book of prose poems, utilize an exploration of language as its base, and the materials of her life as the means through which she makes those explorations. We might even compare the idea to similar structures of language exploration Vancouver writer George Bowering utilized in his Autobiology (Vancouver BC: Georgia Straight Writing Supplement, 1972), but Turner’s, while writing out a number of remembrance single-stanza prose poems, is more conscious of reading and writing, source materials and the composition of the poem-essay. Turner writes out memories around her children and of them growing into adulthood, memories of her own childhood and siblings, and the low expectations put upon her (as a girl growing up in the 1980s, and into the 1990s), and of her experiences moving into and through emerging author, of “a desire constructed for me by books and also television.” (“New York Intellectuals”). As part of a 2013 interview, Turner spoke of the beginnings of the manuscript:

I’m working on a new manuscript called Flourish because I’ve spent quite a lot of time on dealing with the ends of things so I thought it would be good to explore how language operates when things are going well. I like the idea of an exuberant text so I’m experimenting with letting the writing break open and burst forth. The rush is an element I’ve used formally in my writing — the rush of the long line prose poem — as well as the mode of compression where language is put under pressure in short imagistic stanzas, so I guess I want to see what’s between the extremes of concision and excess.

Set in five sections—Flourish: Studies,” “New Nostalgia” “Flourish: Poems” and “Flourish: Declarative Sentences”—the title of her first section suggest writing as a field of study, and her prose poems do come through in a rush; one that appears highly considered, each word and phrase weighed before set on the page, but with such an ease of flow akin to a sudden release of water. What becomes curious is in the title of her third section, highlighting and specifying “poems” in a section where the pieces included aren’t prose poems or prose sections, but shaped in the more traditional structure of lyric poems. As the poem “‘Texts against images and vise versa’” opens:

it was meant to be simple
like teaching the alphabet to a plant

we repeated our favourite lines over
and over until they divided and multiplied

a clipping, a letter is all there is
at the start of things

a lush touch a rush of fingers entwined
we know it means love in the raw sense
but we reach for the poetic anyway still

Flourish is a collection that works to take stock, looking forward, back and at the present moment, attempting a sense of placement, of movement, striking out with every source of information she can muster, from the source materials of her own memories to that of her own reading. Flourish is a celebration of the present, even as she works to take it apart, so that she might better understand it. “The parts of a whole are indicated in partial modes of remembrances.” she writes, to open the poem “Putting the World in a Box”: “Loss is a continual gesture of nostalgia.”

Speaking in Paragraphs

I don’t but I know people who do. Fully formed ideas fall out of their mouths with captivating hooks, building action, and a clever return back to the beginning just as they are winding down. People who verbally process their experiences do not like to be interrupted. They are likely to barrel over interjections unless I’m so uncharacteristically forceful that I can’t be reasonably ignored. Their resulting exasperation is palpable enough that I almost feel bad for trying to take up space with my fragmentary hesitative speech parts. bpNichol wrote, “The mouth remembers what the brain can’t quite wrap its tongue around & that’s what my life’s become. My life’s become my mouth’s remembering, telling stories with the brain’s tongue” and I also feel beholden to “the brain’s tongue” – trying to find language for what continually slips from memory, yet insists on its messy present moment anyway. Internal reverie strangles but slides. The momentary um “what my life’s become.”

Monday, August 19, 2019

Chris Banks, Midlife Action Figure

New World

A ship arrives in the middle of a downtown city
intersection. Although there is no port, people
depart the wooden ship with family belongings
stuffed into suitcases, saying, “So this is the New
World. Who knew it would take this long to arrive?”
Men and women walk past them on sidewalks,
staring into phones, cursing some inner lack.
The newly disembarked hold hands, begin to sing
a hymn forbidden in the land of their ancestry.
All around them, skyscrapers reflect clouds, loom
above them to move along, or he will ticket them
for an unlawful assembly. Where are your permits?
Children hide in the long skirts of young mothers
caressing their golden hair. Was this the land they left
the old country to find? Their leaders urge caution.
Maybe they should reboard the ship for the night?
but the captain has pulled up the gangplank. The ship
is sailing away without them. Evening draws its veil
as a kettle of people tightens around the newcomers.
They begin to chant. Assimilate! Assimilate!

I’m fascinated by the poems in Waterloo, Ontario poet Chris Banks’ fourth full-length poetry collection, Midlife Action Figure (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2019), a book that follows his Bonfires (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions/Junction Books, 2003), Winter Cranes (ECW Press, 2011) and The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory (ECW Press, 2017). The poems are densely thick and incredibly rich, akin, somewhat, to a lyric molasses in which a reader is caught up in an unexpected lyric flow. Perhaps molasses isn’t the right word, but the comparison suggests a thickness, and a poetry in which one can’t easily pull away from. Set in three numbered sections, his poems are big poems (although each averaging a page in length) wrestling with big ideas and big questions, including, as he writes in “Big Questions”: “Twenty years on, why keep / making art?”

As the title suggests, the collection explores that nebulous idea of “midlife,” although one that isn’t necessarily one fraught with anxiety or even resignation (although both are present, as threads, through), but more as a curiosity around and exploration of mortality. Consider, also, that (according to an interview Rob Taylor conducted with Banks for PRISM International, posted October 12, 2017) the original title for the manuscript was “The Book Of The Dead For Dummies.” In numerous poems, he offers a variety of specific questions and statements on writing and poetics, something he has done in previous works, opening the poem as much as a poetic as a sequence of expositions, from “Most days / writing a poem is like watching a pot waiting / to be filled.” and “This is an honest / poem, and even it is on the grift.” from “Honesty,” or “Someone’s handwritten / notes in the margins: Love this one! Huzzah!” from “Reading So-and-So’s Selected Poems in a Used Bookstore,” to “I wish I could tell / you I am the only one in this poem” from “Kintsugi.” Banks’ poems are a kind of lyric collage, each poem set as an accumulation of queries, statements and observations on writing, pop culture, family, society, the human disconnects that media and the internet furthers, the crisis of climate change, mortality and just about everything. Banks offers his thoughts and observations from the intimate to the spiritual to the quietly mundane, all of which wraps itself around the question of survival, and how we might navigate and exist in the world as responsible and healthy humans. How did we get here, and where are we going? How is it even possible to exist during these times? His poems offer an optimism, but one that has been battered around for some time, and one that begins to question itself. “Beauty rewrites its own code.” he writes, to open the poem “Simulation”: “The authentic / is another souvenir most people throw away.”


No one wants the good china. Meet me
at the safe house. Pry up a few floorboards
and you are sure to find an old beer bottle.
Who wants my head on a platter? Pencil in
time for friends and enemies. The billet-doux
was lost in the move. Life is not packed
in Styrofoam. I’ll take a riot over the ho-hum.
Devastation over racketball. I will sign
your petition if you will sign mine. Change
should not require forms. My resentments
come in transcripts. Joy in hot pink neon.
Do you want the egg-salad or the gospel?
Own up to your hurts. My style is foreign
so the heart suffers. Obligations possess me
until I feel like a rolled-up tube of glue.
How did I get stuck in this meat locker?
At least, I have Dante and Beyoncé to keep
me company. Careers are scams. I am waiting
for the next great crusade. Let it be sharing
our inner lives. Tapestries of secrets. The
past declassified, and still parts omitted.
Who needs to be a prisoner of blue skies?
Ante up on hope, and I will double down
on happiness. Fly your banners. I give you
my assurance of a promised march over lands
full of payday loans, corporate retreats. Let me
put my armour on. This takes several years.